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Ben Jonson was born in London about 1573. Of his early life we know merely that he was sent to Westminster
School, and that he
served a short time
abroad in the British army. Though he seems not to have attended any university he received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. By 1598 he was sufficiently well known to be named by Meres (see page 75) among the foremost writers of tragedy. He was a favorite with James I, who named him the first Poet Laureate in 1616.
Jonson was afflicted with disease all his life, and aggravated his trouble by high living. Though he received great sums from the King, he was prodigal with them, frequently got into debt, and died in poverty in 1637. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
His Dramas. Jonson's dramatic work stands out in strong contrast to Shakspere's. In two Roman tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, his learning shows in the extreme accuracy with which he portrays the life of ancient Rome; but not a character in either play has the reality of five
or six in Julius Cæsar, a very unscholarly play. His comedies show the same essential characteristics. The Alchemist, for example (the plot of which Coleridge called one of the three best in all literature), shows a minute knowledge of the processes and terminology of the so-called science which aimed to transmute base metals into gold; but it suffers for lack of real people.
Jonson's ideal comedy could scarcely show characters, as we use that word in dealing with Shakspere. He wrote
what has been called "humour" comedy, in which each person is known by a peculiarity, whim, idiosyncrasy. Each of his three best comedies, indeed, is given to setting forth the whim or "humour" of one person: Volpone, or The Fox, avarice; The Alchemist, hypocrisy; Epicone, or The Silent Woman, hatred of noise. The method was well adapted to what he aimed at stripping "the ragged follies of the day;" but apparently so many of these required his attention that his efforts at reform were unproductive.
A form of dramatic composition in which Jonson particularly excelled is the mask. In this kind of
drama, usually given in noblemen's homes, music and dancing were prominent, and much care and expense were devoted to costumes and scenery. Both professional and amateur actors took part in them; and the author, who was generally also the director of the performance, received large financial returns. Jonson was by far the most successful writer of masks in the day of their greatest popularity; and the only really great specimen of the form written after him is Milton's Comus.
Minor Works. - Besides his dramatic work, Jonson wrote a discursive prose work called Timber, or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter. Doubtless the passage in this work most interesting to modern readers is the criticism of Shakspere, concluding: I loved the man and honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any." Another field in which Jonson wrote much, and some of considerable merit, is lyric poetry. His best-known song is that beginning:
"Drink to me only with thine eyes,"
to the popularity of which the fine old musical setting has certainly contributed.
The King James Bible. With all their claims to distinction, the writings of Spenser, Bacon, even Shakspere, are of less importance than the translation of the Bible made under King James and first published in 1611. Various editions had appeared in the half-century after Tyndale's, and all met with a considerable measure of success. The superiority of the King James, or "Authorized" Version, to its predecessors, however, soon became apparent; and the superiority of its style is still unquestioned. Its influence on the English language is incalculable: its influence on the styles of our greatest prose writers is hardly less.
FROM THE CLOSING OF THE THEATRES TO THE RESTORATION OF CHARLES II (1642-1660)
Rise of the Puritans. The period upon which we are about to enter is usually called the "Puritan Age," because the literature and the social, civil, and political life of the time were dominated by the ideals of the Puritans. The name Puritan was applied in derision first about the middle of the sixteenth century to a party within the Church of England who sought to "purify" it of its unscriptural forms and ceremonies. As they grew in numbers and influence, they became more and more intolerant of the so-called popish abuses, and finally seceded from the Church of England and formed an independent sect.
Independence in religious belief was soon accompanied by independence in political belief. Opposition to the Stuart doctrine of "divine right of kings," and to the autocratic carrying out of the doctrine by Charles I, turned their activity toward purification of the government. In addition to reform of State and Church they attempted the reformation of mankind, by setting before each individual a picture of that other world to come for which (in their belief) this world was merely a preparation.
The Puritans and Literature. This otherworldliness could have no good effect on literature. One of the prin
cipal objects of literature always has been to give pleasure; and if the chief business of men is to prepare for a life after death, there is little reason for seeking to give or gain pleasure in this life before death. The Bible, the hymn-book, and the two-hour sermon were all the Puritan needed for intellectual food. These
have value, though that of the seventeenth-century sermon is not quite clear to the twentiethcentury reader, and there are comparatively few hymns that combine the poetical and the pious. Cardinal Newman's Lead, Kindly Light, for example, belongs to quite another school of thought: it is a great poem as well as a popular hymn. The greatest literature of the Elizabethan Age the drama, since
After the portrait by Sir Peter Lely.
its only aim was pleasure, very naturally met with Puritan disfavor, which brought about the closing of the theatres. Milton, indeed, who is undoubtedly the greatest writer produced by the Puritans, was by no means typical of the party. The poem of his old age, written to "justify the ways of God to man," doubtless satisfied Puritan desires; but the same cannot be said of that poem of his young manhood in which he summoned Mirth and her crew to keep him company: